N W VANCE

The Ghost Of The Gilded Man

No one likes the idea of a cabal with the government, especially President Rita McGuiness, a fiery redhead from the state of New York. She finds the thought of pitting the US Army against itself repugnant. Her only option is to contact Captain Jack Turner, Admiral Blake Jackson, and Wildfire to stop what could become another Civil War.
The unexpected twist and turns that confront Turner, his lifelong friend, Bob Anderson, and Holly Cavanaugh will take the reader from one dangerous situation after another ending in an unexpected climax.

More By: nick vance
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PROLOUGE II

The Grumman Goose no longer looked like its original designers imagined. The plane was originally powered by two 450 horsepower (340 kW) Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior nine-cylinder, air-cooled, radial engines mounted on the leading edges of the wings, but the Goose needed more power—much more power. The first modification came with the addition of a third engine and a pusher prop to carry the plane’s anticipated payload from the Northern Muisca Kingdom in Columbia, to a secluded airfield in Utah.
The final modification to the plane was the addition of two oversized pontoons under each wing enabling the plane to land on Lake Guatavita and retractable landing gear for landing on land. The pontoons were double the size normally needed, just to support the expected extra weight of the cargo and keep the plane from sinking.
The total cost of the refit ended up being about three times more expensive than anyone first surmised, but, the profit would be unimaginable.
Dustin Collins felt proud that he was picked to fly this new plane and its cargo. He had just reached his cruising speed of 170 MPH at an altitude of ten thousand feet after making his second of many refueling and rest stops as he flew from Utah.
“Damn,” Collins said as he laid out his course for his next refueling stop. “This beast sucks up fuel faster than an old wino killing a bottle of booze.”
Collins tilted the plane on its edge giving him a better look at the terrain below in an effort to pinpoint his landmark.
“There it is. There’s my river. Now, where’s that damn fork?” he said, impatient to find his landmark.
Collins followed the river for an additional twenty minutes when finally he saw it. As his plane crossed the point where the river split into two directions, Collins sat his plane on a 193-degree heading and continue on that flight path for an additional seven hours. If the directions he was given were correct, that heading would lead to a clearing in the middle of a forest where he would make his final stop, refuel, and grab a little food and rest.
Six and a half hours later, Collins, fighting fatigue by slapping himself in the face and singing as loud as he could, was beginning to think he was off course and would end up crashing into the middle of the jungle, never to see his wife and family again.
Looking at his fuel gauge, Collins swore to himself, “Shit. If I don’t land this beast soon, I’m going to run out of fuel.”
Suddenly, off his port wing, he saw the clearing someone had made for him. Cutting back his throttle, Collins put his plane into a shallow bank and circled around for a landing. Fifty feet from the makeshift runway, he saw two men standing beside drums of aviation fuel and waiving as the plane touched down.
Collins Jumped from the plane and went over to shake hands with whom he took to be the boss.
“Am I glad to see you. I was afraid I overshot the field and with my fuel bei…,” Collins started to say while reaching out his hand.
“No time for hospitalities,” the man said, showing two silver-capped teeth in front.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“This place is not very friendly at the moment. There are natives everywhere just waiting to cut our throats’,” Silver-tooth said. “We need to get you fueled and back into the air as soon as possible. The longer we delay, the less chance you will have of ever leaving this paradise on earth.”
“But I haven’t slept for two days. I need some rest,” Collins protested, angrily.
“If you don’t leave now, you just may end up sleeping for a very long time,” Silver-tooth countered, screwing the caps back onto the plane’s wing tanks.
Reluctantly, Collins did as he was told. As soon as the planes wheels left the ground, he saw silver-tooth leave, followed by a cloud of dust and about fifty men running after him shooting arrows with all falling short of their intended target.
“Son…of…a…bitch,” Collins said, surprised at the scene being played out below him. “He really wasn’t kidding.”
He then banked the plane around and flew over Silver-tooth, dropping down to about ten feet off the ground, flying directly toward the natives. In panic, men were running everywhere trying to get out of the way of the “flying monster”.
Silver-tooth, seeing what Collins was doing, turned in his seat, laughed out loud, and raised his hand in the air waving thanks.
Five hours of flying time later, Collin’s plane began a slow, gentle decent. Without warning, the plane lurched up then down violently. Collins, who had fallen asleep, woke suddenly, came alive, and saw the danger. The plane had caught a violent downdraft created by the mountain the plane was heading directly for.
Instinctively, Collins hit the switch turning the fuel mixture to rich, then the throttle control to full power. There wasn’t enough airspace to pull the nose of the plane up. All Collins could do was bank the plane sharply, and apply a hard left rudder to keep the plane’s nose level, and pull back hard on the elevator control.
“Please turn, you mother, turn,” Collins pleaded to the plane.
The plane answered the controls quickly as Collins watched the side of the mountain get closer…closer…closer.
“Not…going…to…make it,” Collins groaned as he tried to pull back on the controls even more.
At the last second of what Collins thought the rest of his life, the plane cleared the mountain by a scant five feet, the belly of the plane brushing tall bushes. Climbing back to his altitude of ten thousand feet and back on course, the plane cleared the mountain and there below, he saw Lake Guatavita.
“I made it,” he said to himself. “I actually made it.”
Wide awake now with adrenalin flowing through his body and more relaxed than he had been in hours, Collins circled the plane around, reduced his air speed and made a perfect landing in the center of the lake.
Collins piloted the plane in toward shore where he saw a dozen or more men waiting for him and the equipment be brought.
“Come on you assholes. Let’s get that plane unloaded so we can get this job done. Let’s move it, now!” said Bernard, (Bear), Jenkins said, irritated at how slow everyone was working.
Standing over six feet tall, unshaven, and weighing in at two hundred and forty pounds, Bear appeared to have boulders stuffed in his shirt. On one arm, he sported a large tattoo of a grizzly bear and mom on the other. One look at Bear very plainly showed, this was not a man to be trifled with.
Bear watched the men unload the plane and especially one man who was having trouble manhandling a large box.
Bear walked over to him, picked him up by his collar with one hand and then the box with the other, placing both of them on the dock.
“If you can’t do the job you’re assigned to do, then you will be put in a canoe where you can paddle your way home—that is if you don’t get eaten by the piranha, gators, the natives, or whatever’s in this God forsaken country. Now get your ass in gear and get this box to shore, or, so help me, you’re dead meat. You do understand me—right?”
Before the man was able to answer, Bear spun around to leave when Martin Van Clift, a rather short, stocky, fifty year old man in a tan safari shirt, pants, and hat, approached him as he stepped off the dock.
“Problem?” was all Van Clift said.
“No sir,” Bear said, taking a couple of steps toward Van Clift. “Nothing I can’t handle, Sir.”
“Glad to hear that. It looked like you were having a slight altercation with the help.”
“I just had to make it clear what I…,” then caught himself, “what you had to have accomplished, sir. What is all this stuff we’re unloading anyway?”
“Equipment that is going to make us filthy rich,” was all Van Clift said with a vicious looking grin. It’s too late to start today, so, tomorrow morning at daybreak, I want all this equipment loaded onto the raft.”
“Yes sir, first thing tomorrow morning.”
The night was lit from a blood red moon giving an eerie glow to the lake and shoreline. Collins walked along the shore for a short distance. The sounds of crickets, frogs, and the many strange night creatures, sent shivers up and down his spine. Ahead of him, he thought he saw a figure in the dim moonlight. Straining his eyes, he managed to see a man with, what looked like, a weapon walking toward him.
“You, there,” the figure demanded. “What are you doing outside the camp?”
“I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d take a short walk,” Collins answered.
“Your evening stroll is finished. Get your ass back to your tent—now,” the guard demanded.
“I…I don’t understand. Why guards and why can’t I be out of my tent?” Collins asked incredulously.
“Not my job to answer questions. Now, get your ass back in camp!” the guard demanded again waving the barrel of his gun toward camp.
Reluctantly, Collins turned toward the encampment and saw another figure watching, then another, all watching his every move and all armed to the teeth with automatic weapons. He felt like a prisoner, wishing he’d never taken this job. “No amount of money was worth all this,” he thought. In his tent, Collins found he still couldn’t sleep. Seeing the campfire was still glowing brightly, he threw some more wood on it and re-heated the half full coffee pot. “This is going to be a long night,” he whispered to himself, “a long fricking night.”
Sometime during his solitude and the soothing sound of the crackling of the fire, sleep must have overtaken him because the next thing he remembered was Bear violently kicking the bottoms of his feet and yelling to the camp.
“Everyone, get up. We’ve a lot of work to do.”
Slowly, everyone started to get up, but not fast enough for Bear. He grabbed a rifle from one of the guards and fired several rounds in the air.
“I said, everyone up—now!”
“What the hell is the rush,” came a response from one of the workmen. “The lake isn’t going anywhere.”
“But you will unless you get your ass moving. Now, get at it. I want all this equipment unpacked and loaded onto the rafts. You have one hour.”
“One hour, hell, it takes that long just to get my heart pumping,” came another reply.
“If you don’t get moving now, I’ll stop your heart permanently.”
“Alright already. Don’t get your balls in an uproar.”
Bear looked at the man with an intense evil in his eye. His finger tightening and loosening repeatedly on the weapon he was brandishing. Four of the men watching the confrontation backed off quickly in fearing Bear was sure to kill the young man.
Just when it looked as if Bear was about to pull the trigger, Van Clift walked up beside Bear and put his hand on the barrel of the rifle.
“Ease off Bear,” Van Clift said sharply. “I need every man alive, not dead.”
Bear shot a quick glance at Van Clift then back to the young man and waved the barrel of his rifle, motioning for him to get to work.
As soon as the equipment was uncrated, it was placed on a large barrel raft and bolted securely to the deck.
“What are we going to do with all the diving equipment?” the young man who almost got shot asked.
Before bear could answer, Van Clift stepped up and addressed the young man.
“Son, if you value your life, it would be in your best interest for you to refrain from asking too many questions and do what you were hired for—work. In this case, however, I will answer your question so that all of you know what is in store. At the bottom of this lake is a fortune in gold and gems and I plan to recover this fortune. Many of these gems are extremely large and need to be placed in a museum where everyone can view and enjoy them.”
“Then you’re not doing this for the riches?” came another question.
“Of course not. Oh, sure, I plan to recoup my expenses plus a little for myself, but the lion’s share of what we find and recover will go to museums around the world for everyone to view and enjoy. All of you are being paid very well to help me recover these gems. You are not being paid to ask question. Since I do not have the luxury of time, if there are any further questions asked, you will be eliminated. Is that understood?”
“I have just one more question if you don’t mind, sir,” a huge black man who looked like he was built from used bulldozer parts stepped forward and began asked in a deep booming voice.
“I’m listing,” Van Clift said.
“Why are there so many guards around us? Are we prisoners?” the black man asked.
“The guards are here to protect us all from, shall we say, the local inhabitants. They do not take kindly to us removing that which they threw away—the gold, especially since it was given to their goddess in their sacred lake. Now, let’s get moving. I don’t want to stay around here any longer than absolutely necessary!”
“I want this raft and equipment out in the middle of the lake in one half hour,” Bear ordered as soon as Van Clift was finished.
The rest of the work went along smoothly as the last of the equipment was loaded and two hand pumps were anchored down to the deck.
During the trip out to the deepest point in the lake, one man put on his diving suit while another took the hard helmet, fastened it into place and attached the safety and air line to the back of the helmet. Two more men took turns slowly turning the crank supplying air to the suit while two additional men stood by, prepared to turn the crank on a second pump that would be used to suck up silt and debris from the bottom.
With a knock on the top of the helmet, the diver rolled over backwards into the water and began his decent to the bottom. At first, the water was like glass with excellent visibility. As he sank deeper, the water turned an eerie inky black from the lack of sunlight with the only light coming from a small battery lantern the diver carried with him. During his decent, the diver noticed that the lake was strangely lacking in marine life. Shrugging the thought off as just a coincident, the diver continued with his decent.
At one hundred and ninety-eight feet, the diver touched bottom, or rather, settled into the ooze. The diver very slowly brushed away the ooze so as not to make the water too cloudy. Feeling his way through the thick mud, the diver’s fingers bumped into something. Retrieving the object, he shone his light on the prize in wonder. In his hands, he held a golden crown, inset with jewels around the headband. At this depth, all color was gone making it impossible to say what kind of gems he was looking at. The diver, almost reverently, put his find in a bag and tugged on the rope signaling the men on top to start pumping the vacuum pump.
As the diver slowly inserted the end of the vacuum line into the soft ooze, he dragged the hose along the bottom and felt objects, and anything buried in the ooze, vacuumed up and sent to the surface along with the mud.
On top, men saw the mud coming up from the bottom and directed the ooze onto a screen stretched across a fifty-five gallon drum. Van Clift stared in amazement as gems and diamonds began appearing on the screen. Anything that went through the screen, dropped to the bottom while the silt would flow out from the drum and back into the lake.
For almost an hour, the diver continued to vacuum the bottom, picking up anything too large or too heavy to go through the hose and placed it into a bag. When the bag was full, it was pulled up and replaced with another.
After an hour and a half, the diver was slowly brought to the surface in fifty-foot intervals, with a rest period at each stop, before continuing on to the surface. The entire procedure took two hours after which a second diver would take his place on the bottom.
During the diver’s recover period, the fifty-five gallon drum was emptied of water and everyone simply stared in awe at what he saw. On the bottom of the drum was two inches of shinny gold dust that had settled out of the mud and water.
“Would you look at that!” Bear said. All that in just over an hour. How much would there be in a whole day?”
Van Clift saw a look on everyone’s face at the sight of the gold and said slowly and distinctly, looking from one man to the other, “If anyone gets any funny ideas, my men on shore have orders to shoot first, ask questions later. With those new telescopic sights, I doubt very seriously they would miss,” Van Clift said. “They’re sole purpose of being here is to keep us safe and everyone honest.”
For the rest of the day, as soon as one sample bag was brought to the surface, another would be lowered. Vast amounts of solid gold bracelets, headbands, and priceless gems of all kinds and sizes were being retrieved from the bottom while on shore, the guards watched vigilantly for any signs of wrongdoing. The most stunning artifact was the crown the diver found at first. The crown encircled the head with eight points, five inches high. At the tip of each point was an emerald gem one inch in diameter. That one artifact alone had no price limit; its value was so high.
Gingerly, Van Clift picked up the crown and gently placed it on his head. The crown was so large on his head, it fell down around his neck.
Bear looked at Van Clift and almost laughed out loud as he said, “The guy who wore that thing had to have been a real fat head.”
Van Clift snapped his head toward Bear and glowered at him.
Bear saw the look in Van Clift’s eyes and started to say something then decided it was better to say nothing.
Three times, divers went down during the first day with each one spending one hour on the bottom before being replaced with a fresh diver. After two days of sending divers down to collect countless numbers of artifacts, Van Clift said, “Enough. We can always come back again at a later date. We need to put all this into the plane’s cargo hold for the trip home.”
For almost two days, workers built crates for the larger pieces and bagged the dust up in heavy leather bags with Van Clift and the guards constantly watching every move.
Finally, at the end of the second day, Collins watched the men load and secure the various crates of artifacts and bags of gold dust into the plane for the long trip back to Utah.
“Mr. Van Clift, that’s way too much weight for this plane. There won’t be enough power to get air borne let alone back to the states,” Collins said, concern and fear flooding his voice. “All that weight plus you said you would be coming along—this plane just wasn’t designed for that!”
“That’s why I spent a fortune on modifications to the plane. With the additional engine, the oversized fuel tanks, and most important, the airfoil change for more lift, this plane will have no problem—no problem at all. At daybreak tomorrow morning, we’ll take off.
The final loading of the cargo only took an additional hour to complete only then to be inspected and re-inspected by Collins insuring the cargo is tied down and secured while Van Clift checked the cargo making sure nothing was missing.
Van Clift waved everyone over and said, “Tomorrow morning I’ll be taking off, but before I leave I want to make sure everyone gets what coming to them. Is everyone here?”
Van Clift looked around at everyone, and then asked Collins, “Do you know where Bear is?”
“I think he’s over there by his tent.”
Van Clift saw Bear and motioned to him with a wave of his arm.
“Yes, sir,” Bear said as he approached Van Clift.
“Bear, I want you to take care of the diving team first, then the guards.”
“Yes, Sir. I’ll take care of everything.”
Bear motioned for everyone to gather around and yelled out, “Everyone, make a line. “I’ll take care of the diving team first then I’ll take care of you guards next.”
As soon as everyone made a line to get paid, Bear looked at the guards and nodded his head. Immediately the guards raised their weapons and fired.
A couple of the men saw what was coming, raised their arms, and yelled, “No! Don’t do this—please.”
Their pleas fell on deaf ears as the guards continued to fire until all the men were down. One man lay on the ground, still alive when one of the guards walked over to him.
“Why?” Was all the man could say before the guard shot him again. The guard looked around at all the bodies, and then walked over toward Bear. Bear saw the guard walking toward him rolling the bodies over with the toe of his foot checking the kill.
“You did a damn good job,” Bear said. “I’ll make sure there’s a little something extra for you”
Without warning, Bear saw the guard raise his rifle and aimed it at his face.
“Now wait a minute,” Bear said. “You work for me, remember?”
“Correction,” the guard said, “I work for Mr. Van Clift,” then pulled the trigger.
A sudden red spot appeared on Bear’s forehead, a small trickle of blood and grey matter seeping out as Bear fell forward.
Van Clift walked up to the guard while looking down at Bear and said, “I never liked the prick anyway.”
“What shall I do with the bodies?” the guard said.
Van Clift thought about it for a moment, and then simply said, “Throw them in the lake. Maybe the fish are hungry,” then turned and left.
Van Clift took two steps and turned back around to face the guard and told him, “By the way, you did an excellent job. Tell your men that there will be an extra check for a job well done.”
With that said, Van Clift turned and left, not waiting for a response.
Morning came too quickly for Collins. Unable to sleep, he thought it best to do another preflight check on the plane. Everything seemed all right, but did nothing to ease the premonition that something was going to go very wrong.
“Everything ok Mr. Collins?” Van Clift said, as he walked up behind Collins.
“So far, yes,” a startled Collins answered as he checked the engines oil for the third time.
“Good. Let’s get on board and get going.”
Both men got in the plane and Collins started the engines and began going through his preflight again.
“What are we waiting for?” Van Clift said, anxious to start.
“I’m letting the engines warm up before I start. The last thing we need is an engine to conk out because it hadn’t had time to warm up.”
Ten minutes later, Collins looked at Van Clift and said, “Ok, boss. I sure hope your engineers are right about the modification,” as he pushed the throttle foreword to its stops.
The plane responded quickly as it picked up speed. Finally, the plane was airborne but Collins held the plane on a level flight, four feet off the water.
Van Clift visibly tightened every muscle in his body and almost screamed as he watched the mountain on the other end of the lake loomed larger and larger.
“What the hell are you trying to do? Kill us! Climb.”
“I need air speed to be able to climb over that mountain or we’ll slam into its side,” was all Collins said.
Van Clift almost raised himself out from his seat as he continued to watch the mountain close in on him. At the last possible second, Collins pulled back hard on the elevator control, praying he hadn’t waited too long.
“Climb, you bitch. Climb,” Van Clift heard Collins say.
The plane responded immediately at it climbed higher with the mountain continuing to get closer. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Van Clift squeeze his cigar so tightly; it dropped to the floor of the plane in shredded pieces. The mountain was two hundred yards away now and closing in on them rapidly. As the plane gained speed, Van Clift saw Collins pull back even harder on the yoke.
Fifty yards now. Collins could now see the top.
“Just a little more,” Collins whispered to himself.
Twenty-five yards now. The plane’s stall warning sounded, but the plane, almost as if it saw the danger tried harder to climb.
Ten feet now.
“Not going to make it,” Collins thought as he closed his eyes, bracing for the impact.
Both Collins and Van Clift heard a strange noise and opened their eyes. The plane’s pontoons had brushed the shrubbery as they barely cleared the peak.
“We made it,” Collins yelled jubilantly. “We actually made it. I take back all doubts or comments I ever made about your engineers. I love them.”
“I have to agree with you. I was beginning to have my doubts also,” Van Clift said. “Let’s go home.”
The return flight was more enjoyable with someone to talk with. He still didn’t like the man or condone his murders, but, right now, he was glad Van Clift was here.
“How much longer before we land and take on fuel?” a weary Van Clift said.
“Not far. It’s just ahead. In fact you can see them in that clearing just off our port wing.”
“I see it,” Van Clift said. “There’s Pete standing beside that truck.”
“Pete? You mean Silvertooth?”
“Silvertooth? Oh, yeah, Silvertooth.”
“I see this time he has a lot more men,” Collins said.
“After the close call last time, I made sure there would be no repeat performances. Look closely, on the back end of that truck you will see a Gatling gun. If Pete, ‘Silvertooth’, has any more visitors, he has orders to protect himself. And, from the looks of it, he’s already tested the gun. I can see several bodies lying on the ground.”
The thought of all those men killed by Silvertooth, almost made Collins sick to his stomach and want to vomit. He would be glad when his employment with Van Clift was finished and he could go home to his wife. In the back of his mind though, he wondered if Van Clift had the same plans for him as the other men.
This time, the refueling went along without a hitch and both he and Van Clift were back in the air in less than an hour.
The last half of the flight back to the states was perfect with not a cloud in the sky and unlimited visibility. In two more hours he’d be on the ground and, hopefully, be on his way home.
Van Clift was sound asleep when suddenly and without warning, the new engine backfired loudly waking him up.
“What’s wrong?” Van Clift said coming to full alertness immediately.
“I’m not sure,” Collins said, scanning all his instrumentation for an answer. “The new engine is losing RPM’s and power.”
Again the engine backfired then started spewing out black oil.
“I’m losing the number three engine’s oil pressure.”
Once again the engine backfired, but this time it stopped. Without the needed power, the plane began to lose altitude fast. With the weight of the gold and added weight of another body, there just wasn’t enough power to keep the plane in the air.
“We’re going down,” Collins said. “I can’t keep her up.”
“There’s no place to land,” Van Clift said, panic in his voice. “There’s not a flat piece of ground anywhere. We’re going to die!”
Collins looking all around for any place to land, but finding none, simply said, “You’re probably right—we’re not going to make it.

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